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Reviewer's Choice.

Reviewer's Choice

American Rose

Karen Abbott

A Random House

9781400066919 $26.00

"American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee," written by New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City Karen Abbott and published by Random House, is a very exciting book. It charts the blossoming and death rattle of vaudeville in America, a part of United States history that long has been overlooked. The story is told through the extraordinary life of Gypsy Rose Lee, the queen of burlesque, and the world she survived and mastered. It was a time when speakeasies flourished behind dimly lit doorways, and money flowed fast and free - until America was laid low by the Great Depression. Then the country desperately needed a unique star who could distract them from the grim realities of hunger, unemployment, and despair. This was the time for Gypsy Rose Lee to strut across the stages of burlesque, Gypsy, that bold, bawdy, yet strangely erudite stripper who displayed an almost supernatural gift for delivering exactly what the country needed at the precise moment it was needed. Abbott, an excellent researcher, uses exclusive interviews and never-before published material to delve deeply into Gypsy's strange world, and brilliantly illuminates her triangular relationship with June Havoc, her younger sister, and their formidable mother Rose, the love of Gypsy's life, who loomed far more important to her than any of her husbands or lovers. Rose was a ferocious woman who moved heaven and earth to make stars of her daughters. Her fierce determination was a mixed blessing to Gypsy, who spoke of "The terrifying responsibility of carrying out someone else's dreams" (p. 290).

American Rose also tells the tale of the four short, scrappy, homely New York City Minsky brothers who modeled their shows upon audacious Parisian reviews and paved the way for Gypsy's original brand of burlesque. Falling just outside of the law, they managed to transform the shape of American entertainment forever. Karen Abbott skillfully weaves a fascinating tale of a woman who against all odds became a legend still talked about today, who sold being sexy without selling sex, and whose tragic and sensational life is the embodiment of the American dream. The book is cultural history at its best, that belongs on the shelves of history buffs as well as those of fiction lovers.

O. O. McIcIntyre wrote a revealing description of Gypsy Rose Lee in the Journal- American. According to him, "She is among the celebrity curiosa that collects at smart soirees. An eyeful in a showy way, but not quite the over carmined type on might expect ... Gypsy is of an intelligence belying her calling. Quick on the trigger ... as she continues her slink through the Park Avenue drawing rooms there are not many who do not angle for her, and in every instance, to those who have not seen her she proved a surprise package. Those who expected to find Miss Lee over rouged and thickly veined with Rabelaisian repartee, discovered instead a self possessed lady with a cough drop voice and a dress suit accent who might have run up from Bryn Mawr for a prom" (272). Kirkus Reviews informed us that "Through sheer force of will, she had transformed herself into a national sex symbol and revolutionized the art of burlesque."

Gypsy also had a terrific sense of humor, which came across on stage. When June told her sister that she wasn't ready to be a star, as she couldn't sing, Gypsy replied, "Well, you see, June, if you are Gypsy Rose Lee, you don't have to act, you don't have to sing. All you have to do is keep up your strength so you can carry your money to the bank" (p. 71.)

Despite her apparent humility, Gypsy was a woman of many talents. She not only was a highly original entertainer, a bibliophile, an author whose autobiography served as the inspiration for Gypsy, one of Broadway's most enduring triumphs, a film actress, and a humorist, but also a political activist. When burlesque performers demanded their own union, Gypsy got herself named to President Roosevelt's executive labor board. When Minsky chorus girls, stagehands, and strippers went on strike in the fall of 1935, Gypsy organized the efforts against her former bosses. She got all the stripteasers to put robes on over their g-strings and parade outside the theatre flashing passersby and shouting, "Don't go in there, boys!" It only took a few hours for the Minskys to settle (p. 288).

Did you know that Gypsy Rose Lee was also a doctor? A "Doctor of Strip Teasing" (p. 297). The Minsky brothers got six professors from New York University to preside over the graduation festivities. Also present were ten other strippers, who wore dainty caps and gowns, and were given lesser honors. It was Gypsy's way of repaying them for the angst they experienced when New York politicians raged against burlesque.

The years leading up to her death were the happiest of Gypsy's life. She appeared on the syndicated talk show Hollywood Squares, where she shared the minutiae of her life with an audience made up of conventional middle-aged women. She was more herself with them than she ever had been onstage. She read them letters from Erik when he was stationed overseas, the results of her latest face-lift, facts about her birds, fish, dogs, and flowers, and how to make jewelry out of bread dough. Was it possible she was happy because at last she had an audience of adoring unambivalent mother substitutes?

Gypsy Rose Lee's body started turning on her when she was quite young, and she accepted her role in its demise; all those years of drinking brandy, smoking, sleeping either twelve hours a night or none at all surely had their say. She died reluctantly of cancer at the relatively youthful age of 59. Her sister June has the best line in the book when she said, "The body reacts because the soul protests (p. 335). Did June mean that Gypsy protested the lack of love in her life? Did she not want to live without her mother?

If there is any shortcoming in the book, it is that the author jumps back and forth between the past and present, so that it is sometimes difficult to keep tract of the time period she is discussing. Nevertheless, despite this failing, Karen Abbott in "American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee" has written a stimulating, insightful book, which I would recommend to anyone who enjoys a good read, learning about hitherto unknown history, and a fascinating story.

About the Author

Karen Abbott, the author of American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, also wrote the New York Times bestseller Sin in the Second City. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania., she attended 16 Catholic schools, where she says she learned to pay attention to details, a skill put to good use in this book. She now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots who do mean Ethel Merman impressions, and is at work on her next book. She's hesitant to jinx it by divulging the details, but it's certain to star some intriguing (and not entirely scrupulous) characters in history.

Dr. Alma H. Bond

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Title Annotation:American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare - The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
Author:Bond, Alma H.
Publication:Reviewer's Bookwatch
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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